What do you do when you’re jilted by the person who best appreciated your work? For starters, don’t take it personally

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Eduction, Chronicle Careers, October 21, 2008

I thought this relationship would last. I had finally committed. Things had been going so well for so long that I thought we’d be together for life. I’d found the person who could help me become the best version of myself; the one who would always have my back, who could tell me when to fight and when to give in; someone who would celebrate my achievements and console me when I needed it.

It’s true, I had become a little dependent. Maybe a little needy. OK, maybe more than a little.

Then I heard those hideous words: “There’s some news. It’s about me.”

No, no, I thought. Don’t let this be happening. I tried to remain calm. “What’s up?”

That’s when my literary agent told me she was leaving the agent biz to head up a publishing house. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry, “Don’t leave me!” But I didn’t.

I didn’t because I know what it’s like to have to break that kind of news to an author. I’ve done it myself a couple of times. It’s never easy for either party.

My closest publishing relationship has been with my agent. That is true for many authors who publish with trade presses, since more and more, it is agents who do the bulk of the editorial work. However, most scholars do not have agents and get attached to their editors instead. Agent or editor, it doesn’t matter — the feelings of desertion, desperation, and despair are the same when they leave you.

So I said to my agent that I was happy for her — truly. It seemed like a great opportunity, and one at which she would excel. I said I was still processing what it meant for me, and when she told me that she would help me through the transition — “You know I’ll help you, we’ll get it figured out” — I told her that I believed her.

People in publishing shift around a lot. Authors don’t like to think about that. We like to think of our editors and agents as being only and ever at one company; only and ever committed to our books; only and ever supporting us and our careers. But the fact is, editors and agents often have to move around to move up.

Sometimes that means that authors get stranded, or “orphaned,” at a house. Our contract is, after all, with the publisher, not with the editor. A project will get passed along to someone else, who may not like it. Sometimes it turns out to be a good fit; other times there are irreconcilable differences. I once took over a series of books where the co-authors could barely stand to be in the same room. I inherited a legacy of years of enmity, jealousy, and familial squabbles. It was hard to muster enthusiasm for the project, particularly when each of the co-authors called repeatedly to warn me about the other.

Sometimes editors at trade presses will bring authors with them to the new publishing house. That can involve legal wrangling, the canceling of old contracts and reissuing of new ones. Some editors informally canvass their authors before jumping ship, trying to find out who will go with them if they move. But that can be an uncertain leap; the editor will need some time to get the lay of the new land, to figure out how much support she’ll be able to get from the marketing, publicity, and sales departments.

Both times when I left publishing houses, I was surprised and, frankly, offended by the reactions of many of my authors. The truth is, I shouldn’t have been surprised, and being offended was kind of dumb. I should have known that most people react to news by thinking first of their own interests. There were the angry (“How can you do this to me?”), the panicked (“Who’s going to take care of me?”), those who wanted to talk to someone “in charge,” and a few who wanted to know what I was going to do (those are the people with whom I am still in touch).

I had authors who, when I signed up their projects, asked me to promise not to leave before the book was published. Now look here. I wouldn’t have given out contracts if I hadn’t been intending to stay, but the idea that authors would ask me to put off my own career, or family life, or yearlong trek through the Himalayas, or whatever is one of the things that makes authors unappealing as friends. It’s a natural sentiment, but it shouldn’t be given voice. Nothing, in fact, points out more clearly the fact that authors and editors aren’t truly friends as when an editor leaves.

So we authors should commit to our editors (and agents) and work as if the relationship is going to last forever. And then, if it doesn’t, we need to be grown-up about the breakup and not throw a hissy fit. With agents, unless they leave the business (as mine did), it doesn’t really matter which company they work for. Editors are a different story.

So if your editor leaves, what should you do?

Well, before that even happens you should always try to be a good author. Don’t annoy your editor or fly into a rage if something doesn’t go your way. Make sure that you have cordial relations with the other people at the press. Even if your editor leaves, her assistant is likely to stay and may even get promoted. That can be a real boon to an author, as the assistant is likely to have done a lot of the work on the project, anyway. So be nice to everyone at the press.

Keep good records. If your editor says that the press will advertise your book in the important journals in your field, keep a copy of that message. If she says that it will use the photo of your grandma for the cover of your book, mark that down. Many important publishing decisions are not outlined in the contract, so whenever your editor “promises” you something, just take note. A press will not be obligated to honor those promises, but it may be compelled by moral suasion.

Remember: No one is out to screw you. That’s not the way it works. No one likes to make authors unhappy. But the author-editor relationship can be an intimate one, and often other people are not privy to what goes on between the two of you.

To my mind, as a recovering editor, the most essential thing you should do when your editor leaves is be gracious. You never know where your ex-editor is going to end up. It may look like she is deserting you, but in fact, in a few years, your former editor could be at a place you really want to break into. She may become the editor of The New York Times Book Review. Or of The New Yorker.

So wish her well. Sincerely. Understand that this is not about you (“But I’m the author! It’s always about me!”). Don’t say stupid or mean things. She is likely, if she can, to help get you situated with a new editor.

Finally, once someone leaves a job, don’t ask her to keep working on your book. Keep in mind that these are professional positions, and people are paid by the houses for which they work. If your editor leaves, but your book stays with the house, you’re asking her to work for you free. That’s not very nice, is it?

When I was an editor I worked with an author for a number of years on a variety of projects. When I moved to a different press, he sent me a proposal. I labored hard on it, telling him how to make it better, how to develop it. I assumed that I would be publishing the book. When we finally talked about a contract, he said he needed to publish it with my former employer. He knew they wouldn’t give him editorial help so he came to me.

Please don’t do that.

Editors are generally helpful people and, like good dogs, enjoy being useful. But that doesn’t mean you should take advantage of them.

Now excuse me while I go have a private meltdown about the fact that I’ve been deserted by my beloved literary agent.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University, in Spokane. Her newest book is Personal Record: A Love Affair With Running, and her web site is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com. For an archive of her previous columns, see http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/archives/columns/page_proof.